A child bullied in fifth grade is more likely to show signs of depression in seventh grade, and abuse substances like alcohol, marijuana or tobacco in 10th grade, researchers say.
Their study of more than 4,000 kids in Los Angeles, Houston and Birmingham, Ala., suggests a dangerous trajectory between not-uncommon childhood abuse and worrisome behavior in high school.
"Our study suggests that it's important to take peer victimization seriously," said study co-author Valerie Earnshaw. She's an assistant professor in human development and family studies at the University of Delaware.
"There's still sometimes this idea that peer victimization and bullying are a normal part of adolescence and that lots of kids will experience it, so it's fine. But, this study adds to a growing body of evidence that peer victimization and bullying are not fine," Earnshaw said.
To explore the associations between bullying and its negative effects over time, the research team collected data between 2004 and 2011 from almost 4,300 children in the three cities. Participants were split evenly between boys and girls, and the results indicated that the effects of bullying were the same, regardless of gender.
Even though the researchers hypothesized that peer victimization would be associated with substance use over time, Earnshaw wasn't prepared for the results. She said she was surprised to learn that the effects of peer victimization in fifth grade were so lasting that it was associated with substance use in 10th grade.
Other experts were less surprised, however.
"This victimization leads to youth feeling not as hopeful about their lives, youth feeling sadder, and youth feeling they are not as worthwhile," said Andrea Romero, director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families in Tucson, Ariz.
The study doesn't directly show cause and effect. Still, "those negative emotions may be associated with future risky behaviors like substance use," Romero said.